New Green councillor says concerns at overdevelopment helped spur ‘historic’ Wealden by-election win

A newly-minted Wealden councillor says concerns around development helped spur a ‘historic’ by-election win. 

Friday, 17th December 2021, 9:41 am
Rachel Millward (right) with national Green Party co-leader Carla Denyer

Last Thursday (December 2), the Green Party’s Rachel Millward was elected councillor for Wealden District Council’s Hartfield ward, marking the first time its residents hadn’t returned a Conservative councillor since 1976. 

The by-election followed the death of long-time Conservative ward councillor Chris Hardy in September of this year. He had been the ward’s councillor since 2011.

Cllr Millward described her election as a ‘historic’ result and said voters had been motivated by concerns around development within the parish, which lies within the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

“I think it definitely comes from a lot of concern about what is actually happening with land locally”, Cllr Millward said. 

“It was very, very clear on every single doorstep; it just came up the whole time. Everybody, regardless of your historic party political affiliation, lives in that part of Wealden because of the natural beauty.

“It is a massive ward, Hartfield, because it is actually mostly AONB, so it is very, very rural. People absolutely love that land, as they should, so there is a lot of passion and upset about that issue. 

“It was to the extent that there were people in their 70s, who have voted Conservative for their entire lives, who were telling me they were going to vote for me … because of these issues.”

While councils across the country are generally under pressure to supply more housing, Wealden is perhaps facing more pressure than most due to its lack of a five-year land supply and out-of-date local plan.

In this context, the Cllr Millward was asked how she intends to address development concerns in her new ward.

She said:  “I think that [Green councillors] are already making a difference and I know I will add to that. I think for Hartfield I will definitely make a difference.

“It does make a difference if you have someone locally who is immediately going ‘hold on a minute’, firing off the right emails, talking to the right people and passionately stopping that. It really does make a difference.

“I think what local people have found is they weren’t getting the support and response when they were worried about things on their doorstep. That will change.

“I will be able to advocate, I will be able to raise issues and when things happen that actually shouldn’t happen then I’ll have the law on my side. What it isn’t is the Green Party saying ‘we’ve got this idealistic idea about what shouldn’t happen’. We are just saying that the AONB has national park protection status and that needs honouring.

“I’m sure the previous councillor did really, really care, but wasn’t able to speak out on behalf of the people and wasn’t able to have an impact at council. I am confident that I can do that.”

Cllr Millward was elected with 589 votes, with the Conservative Party’s Bruce Rainbow (the only other candidate) securing 467 votes.

The result was described as ‘disappointing’ by Conservative council leader Bob Standley.

He said: “It was disappointing to lose Hartfield in last week’s district council by-election.

“We need to re-double our efforts to get our message across to the electorate that we as a Conservative administration are: protecting the environment and implementing our climate change programme; providing housing for local need; [and] are a well-run, financially sound and prudent authority. 

“A left-wing party, such as the Green Party, will not deliver the kind of district that the majority of our residents wish.”

The result sees the council’s Green Party group grow to three members. 

Conservatives remain the council’s out and out majority, with the party holding 29 out of 45 council seats. 

Liberal Democrats hold five, with four held by the Independent Democrat group and a further three held by independents. 

One seat — Hailsham South — stands vacant following the resignation of Conservative councillor Kevin Balsdon last month.